Stacy ClarkWomen in Science Menu
Meet Stacy Clark, a Research Forester with the Southern Research Station’s Upland Hardwood Ecology and Management Research Unit in Knoxville, Tennessee. A century ago, towering American chestnut trees would’ve dominated the hills surrounding her office. These giants once played a critical ecological and economic role throughout the eastern United States, providing prized wood and nutritious food for humans, livestock, and wildlife—that is, until the chestnut blight infected them throughout their range and profoundly altered the landscape. Today, Clark is focused on bringing them back. Her studies are aiding development of high-quality nursery seedlings and determining the best light and forest conditions that allow them to compete and thrive when planted. Working with The University of Tennessee, The American Chestnut Foundation, and other partners, Clark is studying the growth and survival of thousands of seedlings, bred over decades for blight resistance and now planted across three national forests in the southern Appalachians. With careful planning, informed management, and, of course, patience, the American chestnut will rise again, and its success will be due to dedicated citizens, land managers, and researchers like Stacy Clark.
What do you do for the Southern Research Station?
“I am a Research Forester. I conduct research in hardwood forests of the southeastern United States, and I primarily concentrate on the testing various methods of how to plant oak and American chestnut seedlings for reforestation or restoration purposes.”
When and why did you come to work for the Southern Research Station?
“I started in January 2005 after the Forest Service offered me the position. I had applied for the job after I saw it advertised and was hoping I would be selected. I had always dreamed of being a scientist for the Forest Service because I had met and worked with several Forest Service scientists and managers when I was getting my undergraduate and Master’s degrees. The Forest Service was obviously the best agency with which I could conduct long-term research.”
What led you to pursue this field of study?
“As a teenager, I enjoyed hiking and camping, and I always felt comfortable being outdoors. I really enjoyed science and knew I wanted to conduct research for a living. I received a B.S. from the University of Tennessee in Forest Management and then I decided to pursue a Master’s degree after I conducted an independent study and a work study project with a professor there. After I received my Master’s degree, I worked for a couple of years on a project for the Jack Daniel’s Distillery installing white oak and sugar maple seed orchards, products that they use for their whiskey production. Then I decided to pursue a different path and went to Oklahoma State University to get a PhD in Plant Science. I studied an old-growth forest there and examined tree rings for evidence of fire history, growth patterns, and relationships to climate. I felt like I had a well-rounded education and experience on the applied side of forest management and on the ecological side of understanding forest dynamics.”
What is a typical workday like for you in the field, lab, and/or office?
“I spend about a quarter of my time in the field, and the remaining time is in the office. The field work typically consists of measuring trees that we have planted, primarily American chestnut, which was decimated by an exotic fungus in the early 20th century. We work a lot in recently logged sites to allow our planted seedlings enough sunlight to grow. Recently logged sites are extremely interesting, full of plant and animal diversity, and are sometimes extremely tough to work in because of the briars, heat, and rough terrain. But it is certainly not boring! A lot of my office time is spent coordinating all of my research, planning activities, and talking with partners. I work with state agencies, universities, and the National Forest System, and I put a lot of energy and time into working with them on various projects and also learning about their needs for research. I also spend a considerable amount of time analyzing data and writing up my results for papers. I also present my findings at meetings and conferences.”
Have you had any unexpected, unusual, or exciting opportunities or experiences as a result of your work?
“Getting to see some of the most beautiful forests of our nation is always exciting. Getting to put eyes and hands on the American chestnut—a tree that very few people ever get to see first-hand—and being able to establish studies so that we can better understand how to restore it is an amazing experience. I have also been able to travel to very interesting places for meetings or for technical assistance to cooperators. I most recently visited Utah to present a talk on how we can use genetics to restore a decimated species like American chestnut.”
What do you enjoy most about your work?
“What I enjoy most is being able to gather knowledge on tree species or forest processes that very few people in the world get to study. I also really enjoy getting to see the natural world and how humans have impacted it, both negatively and positively. I enjoy working every day with my small team of co-workers. We get a lot done with only a couple of people, and it’s extremely satisfying.”
To reach your current position, have you had to overcome challenges or barriers that may be unique to being a woman in science?
“It is sometimes hard being the only woman in the room, and that still happens a lot. There were times when I felt that I was being treated differently because of my gender and I felt I had to work harder to establish legitimacy to my work. However, there have been very supportive men throughout my career that I’ve worked with, and I realized that you can’t waste time being angry or resentful at the discrimination that does exist out there. But you also have to take up for yourself if no one else will.”
What women have inspired you?
“I was very inspired by Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, and Lucy Braun, author of Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America. Both of these women were professional biologists at a time when women rarely worked outside the home, much less as experts in a particular profession. I simply can’t imagine the barriers they had to overcome, and they were two of the most influential people of their time. I also remain inspired by late Pat Summitt, former head coach of the University of Tennessee’s Lady Vols basketball team. She remains the leader of wins in NCAA history for both male and female basketball. She had an incredible work ethic and overcame nearly insurmountable odds to reach her goals, and you never heard any resentment or negativity from her. She started as a 20-year-old, cleaning the gymnasium, washing uniforms, working out of a janitor’s closet, and coached during a time when women’s athletics received very little support. Because of Coach Summit, UT Lady Vol basketball is world renowned!”
What advice do you have for others interested in this field or another career in science?
“Talk to people. The best thing a young person can do is pick up the phone or go meet someone face to face. Those personal connections are what will get your feet in the door, get you in a class, or get you a job. Plus, you can better determine what most interests you by talking to another person with experience.”